Architecture fundamentally is a skin that shelters humans from nature-its elements and living beings. In the past century, nature has changed drastically. Architects and researchers respond to these changes by proposing alternatives that optimize energy and space. These solutions also focus on maximizing efficiency in planning and performance. The wide variety of efficient design options range from using algorithmic thinking to increase the efficiency of space to biodegradable structures. These innovations lead architecture into a diverse future, albeit with the same concerns.
Sustainability and its fractals
The growing awareness of climate change and its impact has made sustainability one of the bedrock of construction in the contemporary world. It has many lenses through which it can be viewed. One of which is to achieve calculated energy efficiency while planning. This can be done using building information modeling software for analysis and experience using virtual reality. One can optimize space planning and create highly functional spaces using algorithms that sort through hundreds of options that make the design process quicker. Another common lens is building life cycle analysis. It involves enumerating the energy involved in constructing, using, maintaining and demolishing, and creating strategies to optimize the same. These strategies can propose to reduce life cycle costs by re-using materials or planning for deconstruction instead of demolition.
Materials and systems using which the building operates is the main determinant of life cycle cost. Materials that are made using less energy, like ones made of cork, straw, sawdust, etc, is one way to decrease life cycle cost. Another way is to use material technologies such as self-healing concrete that increase the life of a structure. Building units that are specifically designed for passive thermal regulation can reduce the energy consumed in building use. They include bricks that are designed to filter air, facade elements designed to regulate moisture, and heat-regulating glazing designs. Innovations have led to materials that produce energy like footpath tiles and high-efficiency solar panels. In addition to materials, building systems that work with natural forces have contributed to reducing the energy used for maintenance. Systems like biogas plants and bio-STPs use naturally occurring chemicals and processes for operation.
Yet another lens to view sustainability is one where the quantity of resources used in construction is drastically reduced by shrinking the footprint of a building to the absolute bare minimum. This school of thought has resulted in the ‘Tiny House Movement ‘. The changing lifestyle and the housing crises all over the world are pushing people to consider an alternative of moving away from large, hot cities into the countryside along with a highly functional and personalized small space. These houses are equipped with contemporary services that use resources efficiently. They can be mobile or stationary. They often use net-zero technologies to be self-sufficient. This style of living decongests cities and provides people with a healthy living atmosphere. The future of architecture is being determined by ecological concerns, regardless of how futuristic and out of the world the solution looks.
Biofabrication and the living materials of the future
Using naturally occurring processes in construction is reaching new heights with the advancement in research done by Dr. Neri Oxman at the MIT Media Lab. Her team takes inspiration from trees, exoskeletons of insects, and other natural structures to digitally fabricate pavilions and installations that function as a living organism. These structures are made of basic naturally occurring substances like cellulose, chitosan, pectin, and water. When these materials reach the end of life, they decompose and return to earth. The future of architecture looks toward a promising era of bio-composites in construction.
Mycelium, a type of fungus, produces strong fibers when it grows on decaying matter. These fibers have a huge potential in the construction industry as Building Masonry Units and panels that can be manufactured within a matter of days using waste products. It does not have any toxic by-products and also uses discarded materials as raw materials. Furthermore, there are alternative bricks that are synthesized using bacteria and straw. These materials made using living beings can redefine the idea of what it means to be eco-friendly and equip us to create futuristic yet ecologically viable structures.
Digital fabrication in the construction industry
On the polar opposite end of using nature for fabrication lies the use of robots to build with precision. From laying bricks to working inhospitable conditions, robots have come far in the construction industry. They have been extensively used along with additive manufacturing to create computation-designed, digitally fabricated highly material-efficient structures. Additive manufacturing is a fabrication process in which heated layers of material are piped in sequence to create an object. The variety of materials includes soil, molten steel, concrete, and different types of plastic. This opens up a plethora of structures and building technologies. For example, MX3D a Dutch startup, 3D printed a bridge in Amsterdam using molten steel piped out on-site using robotic arms. A tiny house module is built in Italy using additive manufacturing using mud as a raw material.
The use of robots and 3D printing technology has helped man, upon his leap into space, be optimistic about laying down firm roots on Mars. Since these technologies require next to no on-site supervision and human intervention, they are the go-to solution for construction on Mars. A proposal by the AI space factory consists of tall, airy cylindrical masses that are made using additive manufacturing using soil found on Mars. The cylinder is the most energy-efficient form on Mars and it is printed using a single-armed, single-axis robot. This proposal is recognized by NASA as one of the most viable designs for habitats on Mars.
Architecture is diverging into many different ways of co-existing with the natural forces of the planet. In addition to this, with the progress in outer-space exploration, it is iterating shelters on other planets and in outer space. The outcomes of these experiments can look like something out of a sci-fi novel and be made of geometry that we see everyday. Regardless of its appearance, the extravagance and ignorance of the previous century have given way to what can be termed as the age of optimization.